Summaries of health policy coverage from major news organizations
South Africa ‘Gives the World a Conscience,’ Op-Ed Says
announcement last week that it will make the patent rights for its HIV drug Zerit available at no cost to South Africa "highlighted the unparalleled role that South Africa has played in changing the balance between commercial interests and moral values that governs the global behavior of corporations and nations," Mike Clough writes in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. Clough, a research associate at the Institute of International Studies at the University of California-Berkeley, adds, "Future historians are likely to view Bristol-Myers Squibb's surrender of its Zerit monopoly as a ... turning point in the struggle to create a more just system to provide drugs to poor victims of disease around the world." He notes that the drug company's motives for relinquishing its patent rights "are not purely altruistic," as it "hope[s] to vent the mounting pressure on national governments and international organizations to rewrite the rules on international property rights," which outlaw the sale of generic versions of patented medicines in most nations. But, he says, "In the short run, the gambit may work." Clough points out that the day Bristol-Myers made the announcement, South African President Thabo Mbekirefused to declare a national emergency to allow the importation and manufacture of cheaper AIDS drugs. Had Bristol-Myers not "voluntarily surrendered its drug monopoly," Mbeki may have "found it very difficult to resist political pressure to act," Clough writes. Speaking about the activists who have been a loud voice in the South Africa drug debates, Clough says the ability of non-government forces to influence governments and corporations "is now far greater than it was in the early days." Among the reasons for this change are the "slow and steady public acceptance of the principle of universal human rights"; the "transportation and communication revolution" that links activists together across the globe to advocate political interests; the "globalization of popular culture and economic markets and the expanding international activities of state and local governments" that have helped activists put economic and political pressure on businesses and governments; and the "growing influence of international communities of experts, such as the doctors and researchers working on AIDS." Robert Zoellick, the Bush administration's U.S. trade representative who will be responsible for drafting the administration's position in future global and regional trade negotiations, said last week in an interview with the Washington Post, "I'm convinced, whether it relates to child labor, forced labor or HIV/AIDS ... that I and my compatriots have to get out in front on these issues." But Clough writes that "it is doubtful that the business community as a whole is prepared to draw the same kind of larger lessons from the anti-AIDS-drug controversy that Zoellick has." He concludes, "It is unlikely, then, that it will be possible to create a new global policymaking process that is not driven by public conflict. But we can hope that governments and corporations will more promptly recognize the need to respond to pressures from global civil society than they did in South Africa" (Clough, Los Angeles Times, 3/18).
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